How to teach Mindfulness of Death to atheists?

An open and inclusive investigation into Buddhism and spiritual cultivation
dhammapal
Posts: 719
Joined: Sun Nov 01, 2009 9:23 am
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 6
Location: Sydney, Australia

How to teach Mindfulness of Death to atheists?

Postby dhammapal » Tue Sep 04, 2012 10:53 am

Hi,

The purpose of Mindfulness of Death (marananussati) as taught in the Mountain Simile sutta is to maximize one's Dhamma practice, right conduct, skillful deeds, meritorious deeds, considering the rarity of a human birth and how destructive death is to everybody.

Do you think Mindfulness of Death should be taught to atheists, people who are convinced that there is automatically no suffering after death? Would it encourage hedonism? I think it could wake people up from assuming they will live for an indefinite period into the future, to take a more tentative, playful and pragmatic attitude to life and let go of quarrels and mundane future desires, worries and fears.

Thanks / dhammapal.

User avatar
Ben
Site Admin
Posts: 16345
Joined: Wed Dec 31, 2008 12:49 am
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 1001
Location: Land of the sleeping gods
Contact:

Re: How to teach Mindfulness of Death to atheists?

Postby Ben » Tue Sep 04, 2012 11:02 am

Greetings Dhammapal

It might be easier to teach people who are avowed atheists (secular)-mindfulness meditation. If that piques their interest they might be inclined towards someone such as Stephen Bachelor (Buddhism without Beliefs) and from there - who knows?
I tend to think maranasati is probably way too confronting for most people - Buddhist or non-Buddhist.
kind regards,

Ben
Learn this from the waters:
in mountain clefts and chasms,
loud gush the streamlets,
but great rivers flow silently.

Taṃ nadīhi vijānātha:
sobbhesu padaresu ca,
saṇantā yanti kusobbhā,
tuṇhīyanti mahodadhī.

Sutta Nipata 3.725

Compassionate Hands Foundation (Buddhist aid in Myanmar) • Buddhist Global ReliefUNHCR
Buddhist Life Stories of Australia
e: ben.dhammawheel@gmail.com

User avatar
James the Giant
Posts: 791
Joined: Sat Oct 17, 2009 6:41 am
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 6

Re: How to teach Mindfulness of Death to atheists?

Postby James the Giant » Tue Sep 04, 2012 11:42 am

dhammapal wrote:Do you think Mindfulness of Death should be taught to atheists, people who are convinced that there is automatically no suffering after death?

No. No freakin way.
dhammapal wrote:Would it encourage hedonism?

Yes. From my experience of being an atheist for the last 20 years or so, definitely yes.

"If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die."
1 Corinthians 15:32


And this, from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
Look not above, there is no answer there;
Pray not, for no one listens to your prayer;
NEAR is as near to God as any FAR,
And HERE is just the same deceit as THERE.

But here are wine and beautiful young girls,
Be wise and hide your sorrows in their curls,
Dive as you will in life’s mysterious sea,
You shall not bring us any better pearls.
Then,
saturated with joy,
you will put an end to suffering and stress.
SN 9.11

lament
Posts: 13
Joined: Wed Aug 17, 2011 6:10 pm
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 1006

Re: How to teach Mindfulness of Death to atheists?

Postby lament » Tue Sep 04, 2012 3:36 pm

I thought the purpose of death meditation was to help realize the impermanence of the body, so that the meditator is forced to stop identifying with it and clinging to it. This seems beneficial regardless of one's beliefs.

User avatar
LonesomeYogurt
Posts: 900
Joined: Thu Feb 23, 2012 4:24 pm
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 1006
Location: America

Re: How to teach Mindfulness of Death to atheists?

Postby LonesomeYogurt » Tue Sep 04, 2012 3:41 pm

I think impermanence of the body meditation would be far more helpful than death meditation.
Gain and loss, status and disgrace,
censure and praise, pleasure and pain:
these conditions among human beings are inconstant,
impermanent, subject to change.

Knowing this, the wise person, mindful,
ponders these changing conditions.
Desirable things don’t charm the mind,
undesirable ones bring no resistance.

His welcoming and rebelling are scattered,
gone to their end,
do not exist.
- Lokavipatti Sutta

Stuff I write about things.

lament
Posts: 13
Joined: Wed Aug 17, 2011 6:10 pm
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 1006

Re: How to teach Mindfulness of Death to atheists?

Postby lament » Tue Sep 04, 2012 3:48 pm

Oh sorry, didn't realize they were not the same thing and didn't actually read the sutta :|
Still, awareness of death seems better than ignorance of it, for anyone. Why promote ignorance?

darvki
Posts: 73
Joined: Thu Nov 18, 2010 10:20 am
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 1006

Re: How to teach Mindfulness of Death to atheists?

Postby darvki » Tue Sep 04, 2012 10:28 pm

dhammapal wrote:Would it encourage hedonism?

To assume so would give atheists far too little credit, in my opinion.

User avatar
LonesomeYogurt
Posts: 900
Joined: Thu Feb 23, 2012 4:24 pm
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 1006
Location: America

Re: How to teach Mindfulness of Death to atheists?

Postby LonesomeYogurt » Wed Sep 05, 2012 1:53 am

lament wrote:Oh sorry, didn't realize they were not the same thing and didn't actually read the sutta :|
Still, awareness of death seems better than ignorance of it, for anyone. Why promote ignorance?

Awareness of death meditation has a specific role within the larger framework of the Buddhist worldview; to teach it without the accompanying emphasis on the repeated rounds of rebirth not only strips the meditation of its context but also introduces in many cases a nihilism that does not aid in practice.
Gain and loss, status and disgrace,
censure and praise, pleasure and pain:
these conditions among human beings are inconstant,
impermanent, subject to change.

Knowing this, the wise person, mindful,
ponders these changing conditions.
Desirable things don’t charm the mind,
undesirable ones bring no resistance.

His welcoming and rebelling are scattered,
gone to their end,
do not exist.
- Lokavipatti Sutta

Stuff I write about things.

User avatar
James the Giant
Posts: 791
Joined: Sat Oct 17, 2009 6:41 am
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 6

Re: How to teach Mindfulness of Death to atheists?

Postby James the Giant » Wed Sep 05, 2012 3:17 am

:goodpost:
Then,
saturated with joy,
you will put an end to suffering and stress.
SN 9.11

User avatar
daverupa
Posts: 4517
Joined: Mon Jan 31, 2011 6:58 pm
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 1001

Re: How to teach Mindfulness of Death to atheists?

Postby daverupa » Wed Sep 05, 2012 11:43 am

Teaching mindfulness of death in the context of rebirth is not going to be skillful discourse with an atheist. For those cases, the quote in my signature is a useful approach - there, the headman is perplexed over competing cosmological and ethical claims, and the Buddha offers a long discourse on the matter. It is noteworthy that the view of rebirth elsewhere described as right view with effluents is here lumped together with it's opposite, and both are set aside as unhelpful speculation in this case.
    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation of the four establishments of mindfulness. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.

    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, goodwill, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.
- Sedaka Sutta [SN 47.19]

User avatar
kirk5a
Posts: 1825
Joined: Thu Sep 23, 2010 1:51 pm
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 1006

Re: How to teach Mindfulness of Death to atheists?

Postby kirk5a » Wed Sep 05, 2012 1:07 pm

daverupa wrote:Teaching mindfulness of death in the context of rebirth is not going to be skillful discourse with an atheist. For those cases, the quote in my signature is a useful approach - there, the headman is perplexed over competing cosmological and ethical claims, and the Buddha offers a long discourse on the matter. It is noteworthy that the view of rebirth elsewhere described as right view with effluents is here lumped together with it's opposite, and both are set aside as unhelpful speculation in this case.

However, that sutta says that wrong view has to be abandoned first. In this thread, "atheists" as described by the OP are "people who are convinced that there is automatically no suffering after death." That is wrong view.

If I was having a conversation with such a person, I'd try to get them to explain what basis they have for that conviction, and whether that's really certain. If someone acknowledges the uncertain foundation for their own view, then they might be in a position to take up the "lucky throw" practice described in that sutta.
"When one thing is practiced & pursued, ignorance is abandoned, clear knowing arises, the conceit 'I am' is abandoned, latent tendencies are uprooted, fetters are abandoned. Which one thing? Mindfulness immersed in the body." -AN 1.230

User avatar
daverupa
Posts: 4517
Joined: Mon Jan 31, 2011 6:58 pm
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 1001

Re: How to teach Mindfulness of Death to atheists?

Postby daverupa » Wed Sep 05, 2012 1:24 pm

kirk5a wrote:In this thread, "atheists" as described by the OP are "people who are convinced that there is automatically no suffering after death."


Those aren't atheists then, those are annihilationists. Quite different, even if these views are blended in many minds.
    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation of the four establishments of mindfulness. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.

    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, goodwill, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.
- Sedaka Sutta [SN 47.19]

User avatar
James the Giant
Posts: 791
Joined: Sat Oct 17, 2009 6:41 am
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 6

Re: How to teach Mindfulness of Death to atheists?

Postby James the Giant » Wed Sep 05, 2012 1:34 pm

kirk5a wrote: ...then they might be in a position to take up the "lucky throw" practice described in that sutta.

May as well accept Pascall's Wager and become a Christian, on that basis. The Lucky Throw is invalidated by modern pluralism. Which religion to bet on?
Then,
saturated with joy,
you will put an end to suffering and stress.
SN 9.11

User avatar
kirk5a
Posts: 1825
Joined: Thu Sep 23, 2010 1:51 pm
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 1006

Re: How to teach Mindfulness of Death to atheists?

Postby kirk5a » Wed Sep 05, 2012 1:39 pm

James the Giant wrote:
kirk5a wrote: ...then they might be in a position to take up the "lucky throw" practice described in that sutta.

May as well accept Pascall's Wager and become a Christian, on that basis. The Lucky Throw is invalidated by modern pluralism. Which religion to bet on?

Pascal's Wager is supposed to lead one to "believe in God." That sutta is describing following the precepts and practicing metta - developing "concentration of the Dhamma," not taking up a speculative religious belief. A concentration which, as it says, requires abandoning wrong view first.

Also, the religious pluralism of ancient India is precisely the reason for the Buddha teaching that sutta to the perplexed person described there.
"When one thing is practiced & pursued, ignorance is abandoned, clear knowing arises, the conceit 'I am' is abandoned, latent tendencies are uprooted, fetters are abandoned. Which one thing? Mindfulness immersed in the body." -AN 1.230

lament
Posts: 13
Joined: Wed Aug 17, 2011 6:10 pm
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 1006

Re: How to teach Mindfulness of Death to atheists?

Postby lament » Wed Sep 05, 2012 3:12 pm

Well, speaking as an annihilationist...

1) My belief in annihilationism is quite unshakable. I can't really see any way I could change or destabilize it. If there was anything in the suttas that could do it, I would probably have found it by now.

2) I can testify that meditation on death does not make me a hedonist. It's balancing. It promotes mindfulness and momentary awareness. It certainly doesn't make me want to break precepts or do actions inconsistent with the noble eightfold path. The alternative, which is really feigned ignorance, seems childish and unhelpful. So that's some anecdotal evidence.

I agree with darvki, you are giving atheists/annihilationists too little credit here.

User avatar
kirk5a
Posts: 1825
Joined: Thu Sep 23, 2010 1:51 pm
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 1006

Re: How to teach Mindfulness of Death to atheists?

Postby kirk5a » Wed Sep 05, 2012 3:54 pm

lament wrote:Well, speaking as an annihilationist...

1) My belief in annihilationism is quite unshakable. I can't really see any way I could change or destabilize it. If there was anything in the suttas that could do it, I would probably have found it by now.

What's the last thing you observed being annihilated?
"When one thing is practiced & pursued, ignorance is abandoned, clear knowing arises, the conceit 'I am' is abandoned, latent tendencies are uprooted, fetters are abandoned. Which one thing? Mindfulness immersed in the body." -AN 1.230

whynotme
Posts: 414
Joined: Sat Jun 11, 2011 5:52 am
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 1006

Re: How to teach Mindfulness of Death to atheists?

Postby whynotme » Wed Sep 05, 2012 4:38 pm

lament wrote:Well, speaking as an annihilationist...

1) My belief in annihilationism is quite unshakable. I can't really see any way I could change or destabilize it. If there was anything in the suttas that could do it, I would probably have found it by now.

2) I can testify that meditation on death does not make me a hedonist. It's balancing. It promotes mindfulness and momentary awareness. It certainly doesn't make me want to break precepts or do actions inconsistent with the noble eightfold path. The alternative, which is really feigned ignorance, seems childish and unhelpful. So that's some anecdotal evidence.

I agree with darvki, you are giving atheists/annihilationists too little credit here.

Dear lament,

I am quite confident in using modern concepts and science to shake people's faith in annihilation, if people are serious about it. This trick I was learned and developed myself when I was converted to Buddhism. But most people are atheists by feelings, traditions or faith, when hearing reasons, they don't understand or accept it. For some reasons, I am only concentrated on my practice, not interested in convert others unless they are close, important to me. IMO most people here already see it by their wisdom so you aren't see any such a basic discussion, but faith in annihilation isn't something unshakable if one has an open mind.

I think it is called open dhamma here, so for your benefit, you can challenge any Buddhism's view if you like

Regards
Please stop following me

lament
Posts: 13
Joined: Wed Aug 17, 2011 6:10 pm
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 1006

Re: How to teach Mindfulness of Death to atheists?

Postby lament » Wed Sep 05, 2012 5:21 pm

whynotme wrote:Dear lament,

I am quite confident in using modern concepts and science to shake people's faith in annihilation, if people are serious about it. This trick I was learned and developed myself when I was converted to Buddhism. But most people are atheists by feelings, traditions or faith, when hearing reasons, they don't understand or accept it. For some reasons, I am only concentrated on my practice, not interested in convert others unless they are close, important to me. IMO most people here already see it by their wisdom so you aren't see any such a basic discussion, but faith in annihilation isn't something unshakable if one has an open mind.

I think it is called open dhamma here, so for your benefit, you can challenge any Buddhism's view if you like

Regards

Hi whynotme, I really enjoy your posts! Like you, I'm concentrated on practice and not interested in converting anyone or in being converted myself. Of course, I like to think that I'm open-minded, but it's not like I actively want to change my beliefs. So I don't really wish to discuss this.
I posted here because the topic is teaching mindfulness of death to atheists, and I'm one, so I feel I can contribute with first-hand knowledge.

User avatar
LonesomeYogurt
Posts: 900
Joined: Thu Feb 23, 2012 4:24 pm
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 1006
Location: America

Re: How to teach Mindfulness of Death to atheists?

Postby LonesomeYogurt » Wed Sep 05, 2012 5:23 pm

kirk5a wrote:What's the last thing you observed being annihilated?

The last thread to derail into a debate about rebirth, I'd say.

To get this back on topic, I want to make it clear that I wasn't disparaging atheists or saying that they will turn to hedonism if taught about death. I'm simply saying that meditation on death exists, in Theravada, not as a singular entity but as one part of a larger worldview. It doesn't function well on its own, at least in my mind.
Gain and loss, status and disgrace,
censure and praise, pleasure and pain:
these conditions among human beings are inconstant,
impermanent, subject to change.

Knowing this, the wise person, mindful,
ponders these changing conditions.
Desirable things don’t charm the mind,
undesirable ones bring no resistance.

His welcoming and rebelling are scattered,
gone to their end,
do not exist.
- Lokavipatti Sutta

Stuff I write about things.


Return to “Open Dhamma”

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 6 guests